The Republicans of 2010 are a party led by a movement. From early 2009, the movement declared that its strategy would be to denounce the growth of the national debt, oppose the bank bailouts, attack health care reform, and undermine the legitimacy of President Obama. On November 2, that effort largely achieved what it had aimed for. Many Democrats are saying it was a typical midterm election, where the majority party is bound to suffer. The rest they put down to the bad state of the economy. But suppose the unemployment rate in October had dropped to 9.0 percent, would the outcome have been much different? This midterm result was a vote of no confidence in President Obama and the Democratic congress.
Obama’s long-drawn-out attempt to settle himself in a place above politics has injured his party and found no takers on the other side. Only in the last three months did he begin to blame his predecessor for anything. Yet to blame George W. Bush for the economic collapse was a half-truth. The fault goes back at least to Lawrence Summers’s deregulation policies under President Clinton; and it was Obama himself who brought Summers back into government. Such improbable shifts of tactics are one reason why many people who voted for Obama in 2008 no longer think he is someone on whom they can rely.
It is true the recession hurt the Democratic Party on November 2; and the origin of the recession was out of Obama’s control. (He never explained this satisfactorily, and the time to explain it was early.) Within his control were some other things: his decision, for example, to put the stability of the banks and money firms—as measured by these same banks and firms—ahead of the creation of jobs. Partly in his control, too, was the length of the delay he asked while he sought Republican support for health care. Obama has a strangely plastic sense of time. Among the independents who brought him victory in 2008, the decisive disenchantment probably came last summer. The president’s immobility and near speechlessness regarding the BP spill seemed to say that he wished it had not happened and wished that people were not looking at him.
The Tea Party movement stands as the latest embodiment of a far-right strain in our politics that has passed episodically from partial control to a dominant grip on the Republican Party. It ascended in 1964, in 1980, in 1994, and has returned with a vengeance in 2010. The continuity has been concealed by the legend of Ronald Reagan as a moderate conservative. Reagan gave the nominating speech for Barry Goldwater in 1964, and his central issues in 1980 were Jimmy Carter’s want of manly resolve in failing to attack Iran and his lack of patriotism in letting Panama take charge of the Canal. Obama’s hands-off conduct toward the BP spill last summer was reminiscent of Carter’s Rose Garden Strategy. Say nothing (both men reasoned) about a crisis that resists a methodical solution, and you will gain credit for candor. But it does not work like that.
Capitalist utopianism and unqualified loathing for all that remains of the welfare state are the dispositions that now unite the Republican Party from the bottom up. George Orwell wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier that while it might be too much to hope for economic equality, he liked the idea of a world where the richest man was only ten times richer than the poorest. Bertrand Russell in Freedom versus Organization wrote that since money is a form of power, a high degree of economic inequality is not compatible with political democracy. Those statements did not seem radical 70 years ago. Today no national politician would dare assent to either.
Total repeal of the 2010 health care reform is the declared goal of John Boehner, the new speaker of the House. “This is no time for compromise,” he told Sean Hannity six days before the election. “People want Obamacare ripped up by the roots.” At a time when the Tea Party rank and file are threatening acts of civil disobedience, it will take considerable dexterity for Obama to salvage a decent portion of his legislation. It seems possible that the Tea Party crowd who want to nullify health care will provoke an angry crowd of a different sort. After all, there are people who need the things that will be taken away. So a president whose political nature is to co-opt and not to fight may be called on to perform an unfamiliar task: to defend the law and vindicate justice (which does not always lie halfway between two extremes) without appearing to assist any of the simmering forces of disorder.